Adaptation: to Paris and beyond

How can adaptation address the the goals of the Paris Agreement and the Sutainable Development Goals, while also preparing us for the fact that global warming is likely to breach the Paris temperature limits and pose massive challenges to development? A pragmatic approach is to frame adaptation in terms of the likely timescales associated with different amounts of warming, while establishing sound adaptation principles. Such an approach is set out in a recent IIED working paper led by Garama’s Director, Nick Brooks. The key points from this paper are discussed in Nick’s commentary below.

Linking mitigation and adpatation in the Paris Agreement

Article 2 of the Paris Agreement commits countries to a collective effort to limit anthropogenic global warming below 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels. Article 7 of the Agreement establishes a “global goal on adaptation” intended to ensure an “adequate adaptation response” in the context of this temperature goal. The Paris Agreement thus provides a broad framework within which countries can plan, implement and report on their adaptation activities, with reference to specific levels of warming.

These adaptation activities need to enable countries and their inhabitants to adapt to a range of geographically specific risks and impacts that are likely as a result of a warming of 1.5-2°C. However, adaptation will not stop there. Even with the emissions reductions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, it seems highly unlikely that the world will limit global warming below the Paris thresholds.

Breaching the Paris temperature thresholds

Pre-covid projections based on current and anticipated energy and climate policies indicated a warming somewhere in the region of 3°C before 2100. The IPCC report on 1.5°C of global warming projected that the 1.5°C threshold is likely to be breached between 2030 and 2052, with some studies indicating that this breach is likely to occur at the beginning of this date range, and that the emissions budget for 1.5°C may already have been exceeded.

Given that the rate of global warming recently increased from 0.2 to 0.4°C per decade, it seems reasonable to expect warming to reach 1.5°C by around 2030, and 2°C sometime around mid-century (see also Figure 1). As atmospheric greenhouse concentrations continue to rise in a way that looks as if they might be decoupling from annual emissions, and the risk of crossing tipping points in the climate system increases, warming is likely to accelerate further. Within the past week, the WMO has indicated a 20% probability that the annual mean global surface temperature will exceed 1.5°C in any given year between now and 2024.

In this context, framing adaptation in terms of a global warming of 1.5-2°C looks optimistic. This is no reason to give up on mitigation. Indeed, it is vital that we strive to deliver the Paris temperature goals, given the potentially catastrophic impacts of higher levels of warming. Even if we fail to keep warming below 2°C, keeping it as low as we can and perhaps eventualy bringing temperatures down in line with the Paris limits is a sensible aspiration (and many of the ‘Paris-compliant’ trajectories used by the IPCC involve ‘overshoot’ beyond the Paris temperature thresholds). However, this will require coordinated global action. As long as we are on a trajectory that takes us above the Paris temperature limits, individual countries need to take a pragmatic approach to adaptation and prepare for these higher levels of warming.

So, how should we frame adaptation in the context of the Paris Agreement on the one hand, and the science that suggests we’ll almost certainly fail to achieve the Paris temperature goals on the other?

Framing adaptation: warming timescales and development goals

With a projected warming of 1.5°C perhaps as early as 2030, and a warming of 2°C by the middle of the century (Figure 1), the Paris temperature and addaptation goals provide us with a reasonable framework for adaptation over approximately the next two to three decades, until warming breaches the 2°C threshold. Put another way, the Paris framing of adaptation works until around the 2040s and perhaps a little longer, while warming is below the Paris temperature thresholds. Until then, adaptation needs to address the impacts of a global warming of up to 2°C. After that, the Paris framing will no longer be adequate, and new approaches will be needed.

Figure 1. Projected date ranges for crossing specific temperature thresholds, based on the nine marker scenarios used in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, simulated by the MAGICC energy balance model. Each scenario combines a different shared socioeconomic pathway (SSP) and representative concentration pathway (RCP)). Data are those used by Arnell et al. (2019). Arrows span range of dates within there is a 66% chance of a given warming. Reproduced from Brooks et al. (2019).

The next decade: adaptation and the SDGs in a 1.5°C world

Over the next decade, it makes sense to link adaptation to the impacts of a 1.5°C warming with achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are meant to be achieved by 2030, by which time warming is likely to be around 1.5°C.

From a development perspective, adaptation is not an end in itself, but rather a means of securing and achieving desirable development goals and human wellbeing, in the face of climate change that otherwise might make their achievement more difficult. So, a key means of evaluating the success of adaptation over the next decade will be to assess the extent to which it addresses risks to the SDGs and allows us to achieve related development goals. This will mean assessing adaptation performance using standard development and wellbeing metrics, interpreted in the context of climate information. The IIED working paper on which this article is based includes a discussion of how this might be done. This is probably a good topic for another blog post, so watch this space.

In order to address risks to the achievement of the SDGs and other development outcomes, adaptation will need to be integrated into development planning, design, implementation, tracking and reporting. This integration needs to avoid the pitfalls of overcentralisation and the consequent exclusion of beneficiaries from these processes. Integration also needs to ensure that adaptation is not simply co-opted by development agandas that might be unsustainable, unjust or maladaptive.

Most activities that currently carry the adaptation and resilience labels address familiar, albeit in many cases evolving, climate hazards and risks (the ‘adaptation deficit’), or focus on general measures to make people and systems more resilent to a range of stresses and shocks. This approach is likely to continue over the next decade. If it is done properly, and is more than just window dressing, it is likely to deliver significant benefits, provided it is sufficiently responsive to evolving and emerging climate hazards and risks.

However, actions to address the adaptation deficit and promote general resilience-building are likely to fall into the category of ‘necessary but not sufficient’. Those tasked with adaptation planning and implementation already need to start thinking about where a focus on the adaptation deficit needs to be augmented with more targeted measures to address specific, evolving and emerging climate hazards and risks.

These measures may involve ‘incremental’ adaptation, intended to protect and preserve existing systems, processes and practices from the impacts of climate change. In the face of more challenging changes in climatic and environment conditions, they may involve ‘transformational’ adaptation, involving fundamental changes to existing systems, processes and practices, or even their replacement or abandonment. This will be necessary where climate change renders current systems, processes and practices unviable. In the near-term this is most likely to be as a result of unacceptably high levels of economic or social risk, for example due to an unacceptably high frequeny of failure (e.g. of crops or infrastructure). In the longer term transformational adaptation might be required in response to more existential risks, as discussed below. As they address near-term risks, decision-makers and planners will need to keep one eye on the more distant future, to ensure that short-term measures are compatible with what might be required in the longer-term.

2030 to the 2040s: adaptation post-SDGs in a 2°C world

Of course, we are not on track to meet the SDGs by 2030. So, the post-2030 development landscape will involve efforts to sustain SDG achievements where they have been met, deliver them where they have not, and/or work towards the delivery of any successor goals. Into the 2040s this can be done in the context of the less optimistic (but still unrealistic in the absence of massive and immediate action to reduce emissions) Paris temperature goal of limiting warming below 2°C.

Over this period, as the impacts of climate change intensify further, adaptation increasingly will need to move beyond general resilience building and addressing the adaptation deficit. There will be a much greater need for ‘incremental’ adaptation measures to protext existing populations, infrastructure and economic activity from worsening climate-related hazards. However, risks that such incremental measures will be inadequate will increase, meaning a greater focus on indentifying contexts in which transformational adpatation will be requied.

Critically, development planning in the post-SDG landscape will need to start from a position of asking what is likely to be realistic given the realities of climate change. Identifying desirable development strategies and actions first and then ‘adding on’ adaptation to make these strategies and actions ‘climate resilient’ will be increasingly risky. This does not mean giving up on fundamental development goals intended to improve people’s material circumstances and overall wellbeng. But much more thought will need to go into how these goals are delivered.

2050: adaptation beyond the Paris temperature goals

Beyond around 2050 (and possibly earlier), adaptation will almot certainly need to address the impact of a global warming of more than 2°C, and possibly in excess of 3°C. The extent to which such a warming has the potential to reconfigure the face of the Earth – in climatic, environmental/ physical, social, economic and political terms – should not be underestimated. A warming of 3°C is approaching that associated with the transition from an ice age to an interglacial, but in this case will occur some 50-100 times faster. Climate change of this magnitude has the potential to physically transform the face of the Earth, radically altering the distribution and availability of key resources, principally water, productive land and biological resources. Current patterns of settlement and production will not be sustainable, with some regions being affected much more adversely than others.

Adapting to such a rapid and severe change in the global climate, and its regional and local manifestations, will be extremely challenging. If we fail to keep global warming below the Paris limits, incremental adaptation to protect existing systems, processes and practices will certainly be insufficient. Sea-level rise will pose an existential threat to many coastal areas. The intensification of climate extremes will result in more frequent simultaneous shocks to food production and supply, transport and trade, and more frequent and severe climate-related disasters from which populations and countries will find it difficult to recover. Shifts in climate will make some regions unproductive (e.g. through desertification), and will mean that current agricultural systems cannot be sustained in others. In South and West Asia and elsewhere, fatal extremes of heat and humidity will make it impossible for people to go outside for more than a few hours for part of the year, and mass human mortality will only be prevented by people staying indoors in air-conditioned buildings, or perhaps moving underground.

These conequences of our failre to deliver the Paris goals will require transformational adaptation involving radical changes in how and where people in many parts of the world live, work and produce. Nations will need to reconfigure their economies, and perhaps their transport networks and settlements. There will be winners and losers, and some adaptation may be palliative and involve triage. In some contexts transformational adaptation will be required for a warming of less than 2°C.

This is a future to avoid. However, without the concerted global action that currently seems highly unlikely, it is a future that countries, unfortunately, will need to plan for.

Framing, planning & tracking adaptation

In our paper, we set out to ask how countries can speak to the Paris Goals through their reporting responsibilities under the Paris Agreement, while also addressing their longer-term adaptation needs in the light of climate science, and aligning adaptation with the SDGs. Based on the above insights, we propose the following three phases of adaptation:

  1. 2020-2030: Adaptation aligned with the Paris goals and SDGs in the context of a warming of around 1.5°C, mostly focusing on general resilience building and addressing the existing adaptation deficit, with increasing incremental adaptation measures and early attention to potential transformational adaptation needs;
  2. 2030-2040s: Adaptation aligned with the Paris goals and post-SDG development landscape in the context of a warming of around 2°C, with more incremental measures and an increasing focus on transformational adaptation;
  3. 2050 onwards: ‘Post-Paris’ adaptation for warming above 2°C, based on earlier groundwork and with a strong focus on transformational adaptation to address existential risks to settlements, infrastructure, production and (in some locations) people.

Countries will need frameworks and systems to help them understand the risks they face; identify appropriate adaptation responses; plan, design and implement adaptation actions/meaures; manage adaptation processes; track the effectivenes of adaptation; capture learning and use this to inform subsequent adaptation activities. To these ends, we propose that countries establish comprehensive Climate Adaptation Monitoring Evaluation and Learning Systems or CAMELS, with seven key functions:

  1. Validate the climate-risk and adaptation needs assessments on which adaptation actions are based, ensuring that these address actual and likely vulnerabilities, risks and impacts associated with projected levels of warming;
  2. Assure the quality of adaptation actions to confirm they are relevant to and adequate for risks and needs, support the most vulnerable, are gender sensitive, are grounded in relevant science and knowledge, and are sufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent;
  3. Track adaptation implementation to ensure that outputs are being delivered as intended, that quality is maintained throughout implementation and that lessons from implementation are captured;
  4. Monitor and evaluate adaptation actions to track their effectiveness in reducing vulnerability and building resilience at the outcome level and deliver development benefits in the face of climate change
    at the impact level;
  5. Assess the impacts of adaptation on development performance by explicitly examining the effectiveness of adaptation in supporting delivery of the SDGs and other development goals;
  6. Capture lessons and identify good practice, including what works and what does not, how to ensure that adaptation benefits women, the most vulnerable and the marginalised, and the most effective ways of supporting/delivering adaptation;
  7. Disseminate information and learning horizontally and vertically within a country to inform policy, planning and programming and programming and via international mechanisms, such as the Paris Agreement’s Enhanced Transparency Framework (ETF).

CAMELS should embody the principles outlined in Article 7 of the Paris agreement, which states that:

“adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate.”

Our paper adopts these ‘Article 7 principles’ and expands on them to provide guidance that is applicable regardless of whether the Paris temperature goals are met, as illustrated in Table 1 below. These principles are particularly relevant to assessments of the quality of adaptation actions, and provide a set of criteria against which such actions may be assessed during design and implementation. They thus provide a foundation for the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of adaptation actions over short timescales.

Table 1. The six ‘adaptation principles’, derived from Artile 7 of the Paris Agreement and framed to address warming that may exceed the Paris limits.

Based on the above seven functions of CAMELS, and the six Article 7 principles, our paper provides a template for the development of CAMELS, targeted at the national level but with wider relevance. This template maps the six Article 7 principles to each of the six CAMELS functions, through a series of questions. The template thus provides a framework for the development of CAMELS on the one hand, and for the assessment of existing M&E/MEL systems on the other. These CAMELS can help governments and other actors plan, design, implement and track adpatation actions and processes over multiple timescales.

Diffrent countries are at different stages of development of their national adaptation M&E/MEL systems. Some of these systems are already integrated with wider development MEL, some are linked with climate change mitigation MEL, and others involve stand-alone systems. Each of these models/approaches has its advantages and disadvantages, as discussed in the paper. We hope that the CAMELS template presented in our paper will be useful for countries, and actors at other scales, that need to develop or improve systems for planning, monitoring, evaluating and learning from adaptation actions and processes. Governments need to start planning adaptation now. They need to ensure that the actions they take in the short-term, in the context of the Paris Agreement and its reporting requirements, are compatible with their longer term needs. These needs will include addressing risks resulting from warming that is likely to exceed the Paris temperature thresholds. Our CAMELS framework is intended to support countries with their Paris reporting (which is discussed in some detail in the paper) while offering practical guidance ion delivering effective adaptation and preparing for a ‘post-Paris’ warming. While it is predicated on a failure to deliver the Paris temperature goals, it is not an endorsement of such a failure. Adaptation above 2°C will be really tough, and really expensive. However, right now this is the choice we are making.

You can find the CAMELS paper at Read it for a more detailed discussion of the issues mentioned above (including the Paris adaptation reporting mechanisms), full supporting references, and the CAMELS design/assessment template, which is included as Annex 3. We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback, which you can send to us via our contact form.

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